Doctor Manhattan Vision

Rewatching all those old videos that we made as teenagers, those short films, is like having a viewable time capsule. Last weekend, I took the time to rip them from YouTube and Dailymotion, set up a shared Google Drive folder so that Matt and I could watch them whenever, so we could save them for posterity. Mostly I did it because I haven’t talked to Chris in years, and I figure it’s only a matter of time before he takes them all down. He already emptied out his YouTube account, so I had to rip the ones I had on mine and find the duplicates on Dailymotion where possible, come to terms with the ones that are now gone forever.

I realized watching them that it’s possible to miss the times you shared with a person while not missing the person you shared them with. To be nostalgic without being rose-tinted, with the years and the fights and the growing, all of it intervening. To miss the person they used to be. And if I’m being honest, how I used to be too. I make it a point every few months to travel back to Chicago–my home. I live a good 700 miles away now, so it’s an effort, but it’s something I do regularly. And there are those phantoms, those half-forgotten places, and the things I did there, but more than that, there are the people I miss.

When Matt and I meet up, we don’t endlessly turn over the past, although we definitely could. There are moody teenagers younger than our friendship. No, what we do is catch up with the way we’ve changed in a sentence or two, a look maybe, and we get back to the friendship timeline like nothing has changed, because it hasn’t. There’s that realization that I’d take a bullet for him, not a realization so much as a simple acknowledgment, and there’s remembering how we got here. The fact that I didn’t hang out with Matt as much as I would’ve liked to when I was friends with Chris, and that icky feeling that came with being mean, something I’d do when I hung out with Chris, and the fact that I knew it couldn’t last, not much past early adulthood, that I couldn’t let it last.

There’s also that simmer of feeling where once there was a boil, and the way it used to put a knot in my stomach but here, now, it doesn’t make me feel much of anything. Life has a way of moving on, a geologic smoothing away of the peaks and valleys that used to matter so much, the words both said and unsaid that would burn in my throat, now harmless and inert–something to be studied.

Sometimes I wish I had a chronovisor, a device with which to look into the past, to experience it without disturbing it. I think of time travel tropes in old movies and comics, and then I remember the comic Chris and I started working on that dealt with similar subject matter. But before it gets too wistful, I remember that I wrote several issues and Chris just never did the art for them.

In thinking of time travel, I forget the very real version we already have–the pictures, the videos. The stories both written and remembered. And even then, it’s the things kept out of picture and memory’s frame, the words shared before and after the shot. There’s the dizzying, beautiful, terrifying, wonderful realization that things truly did work out the way they were supposed to. That I’ve done these things and become this person because of, not in spite of, what happened to me. That had it not been for all of those events in that sequence, I wouldn’t be able to have this Doctor Manhattan vision, this way of seeing the future through the past, of understanding that I’m now surrounded by the people who are meant to be in my life. That I’ve made it without knowing I ever left.

Even the Good Ones

Sitting on a reclining chair with my cat on my lap before 8 a.m., watching the city come to life through my window, hearing its faraway trains blare on horns that from this distance sound more like suggestions, watching the sky wake up by degrees as well, its oranges and blues fading to something more muted, something more mature.

Being used to chaos, you end up craving quiet while not knowing what to do with it once you get it. It’s a paradox. You can do the breathing exercises, you can sit still with your hands forming a perfect circle in your lap, and you can light that incense and wait as the smoke fills the air, all while battles and carnage play through your mind. You learn how to quiet this a bit, or at least make it appear invisible from the outside, invisible to the people who don’t know you enough to recognize, but that deep breath has something more behind it, that tension in your shoulders isn’t just stress from work, and they will ask their questions and you’ll do your best to answer them, all while memories come in scattershot–in sawed-off sprays of light, waking you up when you try to sleep.

Not all of them bad memories, but all of them vivid, even the good ones, the moments you’d forgotten about: running around town at seventeen, shooting a short film with friends, using a crappy old JVC you thought was state-of-the-art at the time, and kind of was, it’s all relative, and you’re kind of glad this was the hobby you guys chose, because you can still find some of these short films on YouTube (the ones that are still up there), and you can download them in case ancient accounts ever get deleted, and you can watch these living time capsules and remember even more.

It’s amazing how much things stick, now more than they ever did before, or maybe just in a different way–the objective versus subjective, digital to replace analog, and the way that you will sometimes not want to watch the video because it will change what really happened, or at least what your brain tells you happened, filling in the gaps with fiction and coloring all the facts with bias, because in this world of data it’s if-then arguments, binary constructs, zeroes and ones–hardly any more sophisticated than the dots and dashes of the Morse code days and yet worlds apart technologically. So sometimes you just want to let the truth have its day. Sometimes you want to keep the memories as they are.

Time Stood Still

Sitting in the back of the bus with a dollar store notebook on my lap, sketching and thinking about the past. October droplets stain my public transit window, turning the grime to a vertical stream as it passes and changes the passing headlights into alien stars–nothing more than ways to mark my way as I move along.

The headlights become fireflies in fading light, the summer retreating to its chrysalis, nights getting colder and rain and wind starting to claim the treehouse we made out in the woods, not in the trees but among them, sitting on the ground and made out of repurposed wooden fences, branches, and a blue tarp we liberated from a neighbor’s backyard. More branches plotted out the yard around the house, where we’d plant our garden once we had enough money for seeds. We never had enough money.

Playing backlit portable games underneath the blue tarp sky we made, taking our first sips of alcohol–vodka stolen from parental bottles and transferred to empty Coke cans, filling the bottles back up with water to disguise our theft. We were good.

You painted the tarp ceiling like it was the Sistine Chapel, counting sixteen candles and watching as you made a Frankenstein God touch the finger of a Super Mario Adam. You learned quickly that a little paint went a long way when some of it dripped off of the tarp and into your hair. It speckled it like you were a painted galaxy, took days to fully wash out.

You swiped a pack of cigarettes from the corner store when the clerk wasn’t looking, and we only got a cigarette in before we tossed them out, laughing and coughing. Your throw landed them in the creek, and I started like I was going to fish them out, but you told me it was okay. We were going to be enablers of fish addiction. We started a fire.

My pen is tracing lines I don’t know the endpoints of before I make them. It’s only when I hold it out in front of me that I can see the general shape, can make out what it is that I’m sketching.

You said we were going to get married someday, that you’d have my babies. We hadn’t even kissed yet. I laughed, sputtered out an, “Is that so?” Flames played in your eyes. You said, “mmmhmm.”

Midterms and finals and college searches. But you wouldn’t make it that far.

One day you were here, and the next you weren’t. Recited words and lit candles and crying eyes and offers of consolation. Days and nights of empty wandering in my room, thoughts moving from what I could’ve noticed to what I should’ve done. Could’ve and should’ve. Weeks melting like wax from a candled finger in reverse, working up the energy to take a shower, change my clothes, go to the corner store we used to haunt so I could put some food in my stomach, no matter how unhealthy it was.

Taking walks through the woods alone, thinking I saw you walking beside me, like a phantom limb you were, always attached to me. I kept walking.

My stop is coming up, but I have to finish this sketch first. It needs to have an ending.

One night long after it happened, I walked back out to our tree house. The tarp had sagged from the season’s rain, branches bent, but it was still standing. I crawled underneath and sat in there, the moonlight becoming something different fed through the water-blue of the tarp, something new. You were almost there beside me.

We’ve already passed my stop, but that’s fine. The drawing is done. It’s us sitting under the tarp together, the glow of a portable screen on my face as you watch with your head on my shoulder, in a place we both know, back when time stood still.

Drink

It’s winter, and I’m sixteen years old. That puts us at 2006. It’s Saturday, 2 AM, and I’m off of work at the theater. The buses don’t run this late, but I wouldn’t want to take one even if they did. I’m walking home.

There’s a hole in the bottom of my right shoe, and theater wages make it hard to get a new pair. I’ve been making my pants last, too. Where there should be a button, instead a paper clip is keeping my pants from falling. I’m supposed to wear black dress socks, but those are too expensive, so I wear regular socks instead. I walk so that I can avoid most of the snow that’s on the sidewalk, but it’s impossible to avoid all of it.

Soon enough, my right sock is cold and wet, and my foot starts going numb. I tell myself this is fine. All of my bandages have come off, and I don’t have to wear a back brace anymore, but I’m still feeling the effects of getting hit and dragged by a car last summer. Still feeling the effects of Tallulah leaving me, too.

I don’t even get to see her at work anymore. I think she switched shifts to avoid me. I said something wrong, and now she’s out of my life for good it seems. It hits me that a single moment can alter the course of a life forever.

In my back pocket is a full bottle of Jim Beam. I found it underneath a seat while I was ushing. I guess whoever snuck it in dropped it without even noticing. They were probably too drunk to notice, to be honest. Company policy is that I’m supposed to turn in all items that I find while cleaning, especially if they’re illicit items like this.  I don’t know why I pocketed it instead. I’m not a drinker. I’ve had a beer here and there (mostly under peer pressure from Drew), but nothing serious. Even so, I open the bottle and start drinking.

I know enough to know that this isn’t the kind of drink you’re supposed to chug, but I do anyway. I’ve never done something like this before, so I don’t know how it’s going to affect me. I just drink.

My throat is burning terribly, but I’m already halfway done, so I decide to keep going. Tallulah thinks that drinking is for people who try too hard to be cool. I never told her about the beers I drank with Drew. I just agreed with her.

I don’t even know if she still works at the theater anymore. I wonder if she’s going to follow through with her plan to go to school at the Art Institute. I wonder how she’s doing.

I feel like I’m swimming through the air. My feet aren’t going where I want them to, and at first I tell myself that it’s because of the hole in my shoe, the numbness in my foot. The first time I fall down onto the snow, I tell myself that it was a long shift and my legs are tired, my balance is off. It takes me puking on the snow to admit that I’m fucked up.

The world is split in two, halved. I have puke on my work shirt. Our washer’s broken, so I don’t know what I’m going to do. We don’t even have detergent. I’ll probably just scrub it with dish soap and hang it in my room to dry.

I decide that I am going to lie in the snow. My brain is telling me that this is okay, that this is preferable to stumbling through the snow. I don’t know where the sidewalk is anymore. I drop to my knees and flip over onto my back. It takes a little while for the cold to come in, but it does come. Slow, like pain that waits. I think that I might fall asleep right where I am.

I lie there for minutes or hours, I can’t tell. Everything is cold. I hear a car squeal on its brakes and slam on its horn. I think there’s going to be a crash, but then there isn’t. The driver rolls down his window and yells over at me. He asks if I’m okay. I manage to stand, and I wave in his direction. I tell him no, I’m not okay, but I think I will be.

He looks at me for a while before deciding that it’s okay to leave. I watch him go until I can no longer see him, and then I turn back toward home. I don’t listen to my brain anymore. I just walk.

Before the End

1944. A year before the end of war. My grandma Joan was ten, and sad, sad because her best friend Crystal was moving away. Crystal lived across the street, and Joan wasn’t to cross. She did anyway.

Joan caught insults on her walks to and from school with Crystal, some older boys saying things she couldn’t make out except for the word “nigger.” She didn’t even really know what that word was supposed to mean, but she saw how it affected Crystal, so she knew it was bad.

Crystal’s mother was institutionalized, so she was raised by her grandmother. Joan’s mother died shortly after childbirth, so she was raised by her father and later her stepmother. Crystal’s grandmother was never home, and Joan’s father buried empty liquor bottles in the cellar’s dirt floor, so the two girls got along fine.

On the day Crystal had to go, Joan took her to the playground one last time. They didn’t get on the swings, but they watched the other kids who were on them. They didn’t say anything, but that was okay. They just watched the other kids swing back and forth, back and forth. And that was the thing–no matter how far you pushed off, you’d always end up right back where you started.

One Last Night

As we sat on the yellowed grass next to the crumbling remains of your childhood home, you with your fishnets and Converse, me with my combat boots and rolled-up jeans, both of us with our shades on against the setting sun, we both took in this time we had together, this one last night before you’d move several states away to go off to art school.

They’d fenced off the house to keep mischievous kids from getting in and having the place collapse on them. They’d been planning on knocking down the house and building an apartment complex in its place, but they’d run out of money during the demolition, and so there it sat, half-crumbled, waiting for someone to put it out of its misery. We made so many memories in that house–hide and seek in the dark, laser tag with flashlights, sledding down the stairs on pillows–and here we were now, watching the light go out from the sky like a campfire that’d reached the end of its life, knowing that soon I’d have to go home and you’d have to go out on the road.

I couldn’t afford art school, not even with financial aid, but you could. I tried to stay cool about it, but I knew you could tell I was at least a little jealous. I tried to be happy for you, tried to smile and get excited in all the right places, but it was more than a little forced.

Our art grew along with us, everything from doodles and comics to portraits and landscapes. You always said I was better than you, and I always disagreed. Now, just to make myself feel better, I let myself agree in my head.

“So you’re all packed to go and everything?”

“Yep. Roscoe totally knows something is up. He keeps whining and pawing at the boxes. It’s funny.”

I pictured Roscoe fussing like that, your big orange tabby perennially looking to me like a kitten even though he was thirteen years old.

“Is your mom still giving you shit?”

“Of course. You know her. She and dad are still trying to get me to reconsider. Stay home, go to community college, go into business, something. They keep telling me there’s no money in art, as if I was doing this for money in the first place.”

“That’s shitty.”

“Yeah, I know. Whatever. It is what it is. And I don’t give a shit, I’m going.”

We both shared a laugh, and it got sad at the end of it when we both remembered that this was our one last night, when we realized this could be one of the last laughs we’d share together.

“Have you gotten your schedule already?”

“Yeah. I’m taking mostly gen eds to get them out of the way, but I’ve got a couple of figure drawing and art theory classes, and I’m taking a class on sexuality.”

We looked at each other and shared an awkward smile. There was a silence that was midway between comfortable and uncomfortable.

“I bet your mom loves that.”

You laughed.

“She doesn’t know, and she’s not going to find out.”

“I could just imagine her turning red and telling you that the Lord is watching.”

You laughed again.

“Yeah, she’d have to do a dozen Hail Marys just to get the impure thoughts out of her head.”

We shared another awkward smile, made eye contact that went on a little too long. I broke the silence:

“Do you remember when we used to play spin the bottle out here at night when your parents were asleep?”

“Yeah, and that one time I had to kiss Robbie Stevenson. Dude was all tongue and mouth, I thought he was gonna eat my face. Freaking gross.”

“Yeah, I remember. I like to think I was the best kisser. No big deal.”

You laughed. I thought I saw your cheeks get red, but it could’ve just been the rosy sunset.

“Yeah. You totally were.”

It got quiet again. The sun was past the trees now, nearly below the horizon.

There was no way of knowing who initiated the kiss. It just sort of happened. When it was over, you scooted over and rested your head on my shoulder. I reached over and started stroking your hair. The neighborhood looked to me like it was coming through a fishbowl on account of the tears that were forming. I closed my eyes and smiled.

Wake Up

It started with a song, as these things all too often do. “Wake Up” by Arcade Fire. We were seventeen going on eighteen, and we’d jam to it on repeat to celebrate having graduated high school, all of us trying to figure out what it was we were going to do next.

Topher would storyboard Wallace’s ideas for new short films in between inking his own comics, paying out of pocket to get those first comics printed so that he could see his work on paper. He’d sneak them onto the shelves at all the local comic shops, load each issue with several business cards so that fans could follow him before he got his big break.

Wallace scripted out short films like crazy, relying on guerilla filmmaking to bring them to life. His budgets almost never exceeded $0, and he’d get the lay of a location before sneaking in and getting the shots he needed without getting caught. We snuck into hospital rooms, the back of a bookstore, a small concert venue, even bars so that we could get the shots we needed. It paid off, too–although the scripted dialogue left much to be desired, the locations looked professional and lent the productions an official look.

I kept my stories to myself at first, but soon enough I was showing them to Topher and Wallace, the latter adapting them into screenplays and the former drawing out characters and storyboards. Topher was talking about staying in Chicago to capitalize on the burgeoning art and comics scene, Wallace was serious about moving to LA and pursuing a career in film, and I was considering moving to New York City, the hub of publishing, to try to make it as a writer.

As the months went on, though, we drifted further and further apart. The stress of applying to colleges out of state and committing to our respective artforms was too much for us. The group fell apart, but the song played on:

“If the children don’t grow up,
our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.
We’re just a million little gods causin’ rain storms,
turnin’ every good thing to rust.”

Topher moved into an apartment in the city, Wallace took a road trip to LA that he never came back from, and I flew to NYC. We stayed Facebook friends even though we stopped talking, and so we’d get glimpses here and there of what the others were up to. College was a challenge, but it seemed like we were all rising to the occasion. Every time I got a story read in class or performed at a cafe, every time I saw Wallace casting for a shoot or Topher putting out another issue of his comic all on his own, I wanted to reach out, wanted for us to come together like we used to, to share in our successes together. But the song continued:

“I guess we’ll just have to adjust.”

Years passed. As they did, I imagined just how many times that song came up on shuffle, how many times each of them got its lyrics inexplicably stuck in their heads. I wondered what they thought every time it happened, whether they thought of me or not. I knew they were watching just as I was–I’d occasionally catch Wallace liking one of my posts before realizing his mistake and unliking it, not fast enough where it wouldn’t show in my notifications. More years passed. We graduated. Wallace placed in a film festival. Topher took a junior position as a colorist. I published in a handful of magazines and was brought on board at a separate litmag as a reader. We were all hearing these lines playing in the background on repeat:

“With my lightnin’ bolts a glowin’,
I can see where I am goin’ to be”

We ignored what came after, though:

“when the reaper he reaches and touches my hand.”

Over the years, I’d return to those simpler times. I’d tell coming-of-age stories about what it meant to come into your own artistically at the same time that you were growing up. How these individual growths come to inform each other. Truth be told, if I hadn’t met Topher and Wallace, I might not even have taken writing seriously in the first place. But seeing them sketch and shoot constantly brought something out in me that I didn’t know I had. Now I stood on the cusp of breaking out as a writer, and I wasn’t even on speaking terms with these guys. All I had were the memories of reckless abandon, of being free from the clutches of high school and having our futures open wide in front of us. Now I was happy, I was settled, and I’d found someone to spend my life with, but I needed to write this final chapter. As I thought about how to approach this, the song’s beginning came back to me:

“Somethin’ filled up
my heart with nothin’.
Someone told me not to cry.”

And the song went on in my head, telling me that now that I’m older and my heart’s grown colder, I can see that it’s a lie. I heard the line that told me to wake up, to hold my mistake up. So what did I do? I started a group chat between the three of us. I agonized for ten minutes over what to say, whether I should type out a long message or not, but finally I just sent:

“Hey.”

And there was the end of the song again, instruments building to a crescendo, picking up speed, and the lead singer shouting out:

“You better look out below!”

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Show Me the Way to Earth

Chicago, Summer 2007. The Dark Knight was still a year away, but that didn’t stop us from running all over the city at all hours of the night, hunting for film sets. I was wrapped up like a mummy, complete with burn bandages and plastic back brace–the result of teenage stupidity telling me that car surfing after getting off work at the local movie theater would be a good idea.

We scrambled around downtown at two, three, four in the morning, me at sixteen years old, ignoring calls from my mother until the calls dropped off altogether and she let me do what I was going to do. We belted out songs as we hunted for sets. It was usually something from the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, one of the few CDs sitting on the floor of Eric’s Jeep that wasn’t scratched to hell, having to dig past fast food garbage to get to it. One of our favorites was “Baby’s on Fire.” We had a choreographed dance and everything. We’d pretend to row invisible boats at “rescuers row row,” wiggle our arms at “blow the wind blow blow,” and click the shutters of invisible cameras at “photographers snip snap.”

We found an empty set on the edge of Lake Michigan that was cordoned off with caution tape, green screen behind it that would stand in for ferries in the movie. A security guard told us to not even think about it, but we snuck in the second he wasn’t paying attention. We found a half-full water bottle and speculated that Christian Bale or Heath Ledger could’ve drank from it. Considered putting it on eBay, but didn’t.

This was years before I’d end up going to film school, before I’d graduate from film to fiction, before I’d publish, so I took mental notes as Matt and Eric hashed out ideas for short films, did my best when I was cast in one of Eric’s shorts about two hitmen trying to figure out what to do with a dead body in a trunk, Tarantino written all over it. I played Batman in a fan film we shot in a single day, sweating to death in a slapped-together batsuit as we filmed in Eric’s sweltering basement that was meant to be an interrogation room.

I smoked my first cigarette that summer, hated it. Tried weed for the first time, didn’t hate it. I never anticipated myself doing these things, but then I never anticipated my parents getting divorced either. So I rode around with Eric in his Jeep for hours, neither of us knowing where we were going but neither of us really caring. There was that time we fell asleep in a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, windows open, music playing. That time we snatched a couple bikes that hadn’t been locked up and rode them down a hill that was tall and steep enough to cause serious injury if we fell off, which we miraculously didn’t.

I was invincible, as evidenced by the fact that I’d somehow survived hitting pavement at 30 mph and subsequently being dragged by a car. Right after it happened, I was covered in blood, my clothing in tatters. One of the witnesses on the scene was a guy who’d just walked out of a screening of Hostel: Part II, and the irony of this fact was not lost on me. Sure, I had to go home once a day to change my bandages, sure I had to take a shower sitting down, and sure I had to go to physical therapy, but I survived, and that was all that mattered. Nothing could stop me.

In terms of romance, it was the age of flirting over Myspace and making out in darkened theater auditoriums. My friends acted like I was a wounded puppy only when it would help me get a girl’s attention, otherwise not really bringing up my injuries, not treating me any different because of them.

I let my hair grow out, my idea of sticking it to the man before I’d have to go back for my junior year and adopt the clean cut look that my high school’s medieval dress code demanded. Decked myself out in every Batman tee I could find at Hot Topic before I’d have to go back to tucking polo shirts into khakis at school. I was a rebel with an expiration date.

Even as summer drew to a close, as my wounds healed and I prepared to go back to school and work both, we still found ourselves riding around in Eric’s old Jeep late at night, belting out the lyrics to songs by Shudder to Think, T. Rex, Brian Eno, and others, planning out our next short film in between CD swaps, wondering aloud how awesome The Dark Knight would end up being, quoting all the lines we’d heard in the trailers in the meantime.

We’d always seem to work our way back to one of the more soulful numbers off the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon.” The guitars would sweep off and into space as only good glam rock guitars could do, and we’d all belt out the opening lines together:

Got tired of wasting gas living above the planet
Mister, show me the way to earth

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End of the Line

When the sun finally decides to come up, this moment in time will be taken from us. But for now it’s night, so everything is still ours.

We do not care. If we were to be asked how many fucks we give, the answer would always be zero. Social norms are like suggestions to us. Etc.

We’re here at the end of our seventeenth summer. The previous sixteen were test runs for this one. Your face in the fading light is minimalistic: the smoke of your eyes, the cherry of your lips. Slung around your neck by twine, over the blossoms printed on your dress, is a stop sign with the S scrubbed away so it just says top. I ask if it’s meant to be a postmodern self-referential thing or what and you roll your eyes at me, lace your hands and do a boy band heart pound. I do the move in unison with you and smile, but I’m leaving for college in the morning so the smile ends up being a sad smile.

We walk until you stop to balance an acorn on the laces of your red Converse. The top sign scrapes pavement and sends up sparks in a pattern we can’t identify: some jumbled up version of Morse code. You become one-legged. You hop. You balance the unborn tree on your shoe. You tell me I am to clap along, maybe do that one Russian dance, the one that involves crouching and kicking. I do these things. We sing a song for the tree fetus and when we’re done you kick it in the air. When we’re done you catch it in your mouth like a tossed popcorn. When we’re done you immediately regret your decision. I give you a wax bottle to wash the taste of dirt out. I hold your spun-gold hair back as you spit tiny grass blades onto someone’s lawn.

For a second there, everything becomes the last time we’ll do it together. This is the last time we’ll see who will say penis the loudest. Here’s the last rock we’ll sling at a McMansion’s bay window. Etc.

I laugh too loud at your next joke to cover up the choking sound in my throat and we make forcefield cars together. Forcefield cars are when you snatch a sprinkler and put it on a car’s roof. The forcefield’s only water, but it’s super effective: most people will chase us but never stop the sprinkler. It’ll go all night like that.

We find the Switzerland car (always neutral) and force it into conflict by rolling it into the middle of the street. We go through a drive-thru in an invisible car. We make Our Lady of Piety’s sign say that righteous men follow the word of dog. We cannot be stopped.

When you eye me with that look I know what you want to do before you say it. It. The grand finale. Our little pièce de teenage résistance. The masterpiece we’ve been planning all year.

We get there right on time, while the driver’s still scarfing down his burger across the street. We look at this idling bus, door open, and we remember to breathe. You get in the driver’s seat and pass me the driver’s jacket. I put it on, apply adhesive to my upper lip, and stick on the fake Luigi mustache I used last Halloween. With aviators on, I could be your supervisor. You bite your cheeks to stop smiling. Clear your throat to stop laughing.

I shield you from view when our first customer gets on; insist you’re doing fine in a voice I hope sounds adultish. Two more get on at the next stop. You’re doing fine. Good job. I’m okay. I mean you’re okay.

No one says anything when you go off course. They don’t speak up till the bus stops outside some concert in the park summer series, till my mustache tells them this is it, last stop, end of the line, everybody out. Some mutter, but this is Chicago, and the shades and mustache make me look like Coach Ditka. All Chicagoans respect Coach Ditka.

I funnel them out the rear door just in case. Some crowd the stop for the next bus. Others spill into the concert. Some just walk home. I watch your face pulse in the Morse code of streetlights as you drive away.

We park in the lot of a forest preserve; turn the lights off so we’re in stealth mode. We push the emergency hatch that opens onto the roof and I give you a boost. Climb up after you and ditch my Ditka disguise.

You lie on your back and I copy you. We look up into the splattered canvas of sky, white dripped on black, and listen to a faraway car alarm that just started up. We do a boy band heart pound in unison. We don’t plan it. It just happens.

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